When you pack for six months in a foreign country, each and every thing you put in your suitcase has to have a purpose. I brought my tin, three-tiered lunch pail because I like food transport. I brought my hammock because I’m addicted to leisure. I brought a small sampling of my tie collection because six months of resembling a bum just isn’t proper. I did not, however, bring my soccer cleats. Instead, I convinced myself that a pair of turf boots would be more utilitarian. I also didn’t bring a ball. If you know me, or if you’ve ever lived with me, you know that I have one rule: not only are balls allowed in the house, they are encouraged, required even. So when I was rummaging through the back aisles at my local grocery store and I came upon a used size-five ball priced at a measley 13RMB, there was no question, that ball was mine. Fifteen minutes later, I had my turf boots laced up and my Irish Football Association three-quartered pants thrown on.
If I was going to go outside and kick about, I’d need to wear the only footie shirt I brought, a 1960’s era replica jersey, bright red with white lettering. It had rained the night before, leaving puddles scattered like islands in the South Pacific over the green pavement of the campus basketball court, the only suitable place for a self-sustaining game of keepie-uppies. In Beijing there are the odd moments when I feel at home. This was one of them. 100 juggles with my right foot, 100 with my left, 200 alternating, then ladders (that’s right foot to right thigh to head to left thigh to left foot and so forth) and just when I started to thighs only, the old voice of a small man with two teeth and an all-brown jumpsuit brought out of my momentary nirvana. I didn’t understand most of what he said, but when he pointed to the nearby windows and then at me and then at the ball, I could tell that he was the groundskeeper, and that I wasn’t going to be breaking any windows on his watch. Crushed, I uttered the only thing I could think of. 为什么? Why? But it didn’t do any good. He wouldn’t leave me alone until I left the court. Back in my dorm, so angryat having my short Beijing football career cut short so early, I sat down to read a book, but as I caught a glance of myself in the mirror, I looked down at my shirt, and I laughed at the letters on my shirt. CCCP. Союз Советских Социалистических Республик. That’s Russian for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR, the primary rival of the People’s Republic of China during the late 1950’s and 1960’s. That groundskeeper had probably seen me kicking a football and thought, no problem, just a foreigner playing ball. But then he had seen my shirt. He had seen those for white letters that he had heard about when he was younger. I felt stupid. After spending months studying Sino-Soviet relations, I should have seen it coming. But I was never going to be able to kick a flat football hard enough to break a window, of that I’m sure. I’m not going to accuse the groundskeeper of xenophobia, but I’ll say this. Next time, I’ll stick with a plain white tee and hope there’s a different old man on duty.